Written by Dr. Alex McGregor, Deputy Head of School
Dr. McGregor is Deputy Head of School at UWC ISAK Japan. He also teaches History.
As educators we have a duty to protect our students. But how best to do this? If we erect a giant watchtower, equip teachers with cattle prods, programme robot sentries and create a complex network of laser trip-wires we will certainly keep our students safe. Safe and suffocated. If we truly want to help our students develop self-transforming mindsets then it is crucial that we help them learn how to take responsibility for their own protection and wellbeing. After all, we won’t always be there in the future (though our robot sentries might). So whilst it is a non-negotiable that we must take appropriate, cutting-edge measures to ensure the safety, security and wellbeing of everyone in our community, it is also vital that we help our students develop the skills to be able to do this for themselves.
Consequently, over the last few weeks, every student has been engaged in a series of workshops we collectively titled, Protective Behaviours. We have used a carousel format to ensure that each grade level has rotated through the same training in three related but distinct areas. For example, if you were in Grade 11 the first workshop was entitled ‘Staying Safe’. This was a high-energy session in which students cycled through a number of scenarios ranging from what to do if you get lost to what to do if you find yourself in a vulnerable social situation. The following week, Grade 11 students had a session on the topic of consent. Given the current climate, this featured discussions on sexual health and wellbeing, but consent is of course a much broader concept. By working through different scenarios the students were able to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the underlying issues and now find themselves better equipped to make informed decisions. The final workshop for Grade 11 concentrated on relationships and more specifically, how to manage difficult conversations. Here we focused on three elements, the concept of congruence (understanding one’s own thoughts and feelings), power dynamics (the ones you can control and those you cannot) and wants and needs (both yours and other peoples’), and how to navigate between them.
Naturally, we cannot anticipate every possible scenario or outcome but the intention with these workshops was to provide the students with a problem-solving toolkit. One overarching motif of these sessions was a focus on communication. Essentially, we repeatedly posed the question: how do we talk to each other? After all, there will be countless occasions throughout our lives when we find ourselves in disagreement or conflict with others. The language we need to resolve flashpoints will differ significantly depending on the circumstances. Indeed, deploy the wrong language and the problem will escalate quickly. In fact, there are generally only two types of response to conflict: resolution through violence and resolution through conversation. And for us, violence by necessity must not be on the table.
Within the UWC movement, many schools have developed clearly-articulated norms of communication. They are all based on the same essential premise. Firstly, we should listen and read to understand perspective, emotion and/or meaning of the context or audience. We should strive to articulate thoughts and ideas effectively in a variety of forms and contexts. We should try to make informed choices about medium of communication according to audience and purpose. And finally, the tone, content and body language should be appropriate to audience and purpose. As standards, these make sense, but the question arises: through which methodology should we actually promote these standards?
At UWC ISAK Japan, we are working towards employing Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC approach, or non-violent communication. Though developed during the 1960s, as a concept, non-violent communication is not new. As Rosenberg once wrote, “All that has been integrated into NVC has been known for centuries about consciousness, language, communication skills, and use of power that enable us to maintain a perspective of empathy for ourselves and others, even under trying conditions.” In simple terms, our ambition is to foster a culture of respect and understanding, to listen to others with compassion, and to realise that the resources exist for us to resolve our conflicts. There are several elements to non-violent communication and competency in them requires time, learning, practice and skill. Below are some of the most fundamental elements that we want to focus on.
Separate observation from evaluation
Observations may be incorrect but they do not imply a judgement, which is not the case with evaluation. Presenting observations enables a person conversing on a difficult topic to explore the issue without feeling threatened.
Distinguish feelings from thoughts
This process enables one to understand the origin of their reaction to stimuli be it experience, memory, training, cognition or other. Distinguishing between how you feel and what you think is healthy as thoughts can be changed more readily than feelings. Separation between the two allows for better understanding, thinking and decision making.
Look to make requests not demands
Requests are invitational and draw others into the conversation whereas demands can feel oppressive and elicit a negative emotional reaction. This approach enables one to say no without fear of escalation or reprisal.
Avoid moralistic judgements
Attempting to move from a “right or wrong” or a “good and bad” approach to a needs based assessment allows for a problem solving approach to conversation as opposed to a dominance or power based approach. Note: moralistic judgement is not the same as value judgement.
Take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and actions.
Avoiding blame and taking responsibility, apologising when necessary, will prevent escalation of negative emotions and will help to provide a compassionate context in which to resolve problems.
Use verbal force minimally
There may be occasions when verbal force is legitimate however it should be used only minimally and only to protect rather than to get what one wants without agreement.
We shall always remain committed to keeping our students safe and well and we recognise that one crucial part of this process is to provide our students with the skills to protect themselves and others both now and in the future. Communication is the dilithium crystal powering this engine. However, for conversation to defeat violence, we must ensure that we embed the above ideas in more than just a series of workshops. As educators, we must use them intentionally in our conversations with students no matter if we are discussing predicted grades, report cards or extended essays. We must also empower our students to use these ideas intentionally in their own conflict resolution conversations whether those relate to room mate squabbles, disagreements on collaborative projects, how they talk to their friends or how they talk to their families. If we can master this approach there will be no robot sentry that can stop us.